A WOW of a 30th birthday trip...
February 25, 2009 2:27 PM   Subscribe

I want to go somewhere really special this summer (July 2009) to celebrate my 30th birthday. "Wow Factor" is essential

problem is, the "wow factor" is also proving a challenge because I've travelled a fair bit and things like "Go to Paris" have lost their "wow" for me. I know that sounds awful, but I'm being honest. I am the person who flew home from Japan for the weekend and decided on a whim to go to Seoul, because it was there and I hadn't been... I am not a normal traveller and I recognize this. Having lived and worked abroad has skewed my sense of "normal"

Some details:
Accommodation: It's my 60+ mother and I, meaning hostels are out. We're looking for reasonably priced accommodation (Starwood Hotels a bonus, I have oodles of points)
-NYC based so all airlines generally accessible via one of the three airports. We have miles on a number of airlines - so no strong preference -- between the alliances; we're covered.
-relatively flexible with July and August dates but mom's a school principal so it has to be summer. Yes, this causes some issues with peak season and weather.
-Flight time - less than 10/12 hours. Exceptions might be Buenos Aires, etc. where there's less jet lag to deal with. Any longer probably too much for a week/10 days-ish trip.
-Walking fine; sightseeing fine. Some mix of vacation and sight-seeing preferred as I don't want to come back from a vacation needing a vacation. We enjoy cultural things, history outdoor activities, beach, mountains (but not likely to be climbing), really anything.... I'm a shutter bug, so pretty is a bonus.

Some we've considered and ruled out:
-Russia: accommodation too expensive in Moscow and St. Petersburg to make this relatively affordable.
-Western Europe pretty much out, I've been to and seen most of what I want to see. It's sad, but there's little WOW left for me in Western Europe. Ditto some of Eastern Europe -- I traveled fairly extensively when I lived in Prague. There are plenty of places to go -- but I really want a WOW for my 30th, not something I could do at any time.
-Japan - used to live there, mom's been
-Australia - used to live there, too far for short trip
-Vietnam - would love to go - think it's too far for a short trip
-Caribbean -- early hurricanes chance turning the trip on its end -- would prefer not to run that risk.

In the running:
-Israel - probably my top choice, mother less in favor of this and not sure I can talk her into it. She has some valid safety concerns, I was traveling immediately after 9/11 and tend to subscribe to the thought of -- if it's my time, I'll die wherever I am --including home in bed. I observe precautions but refuse to let things I can't control overrule what I'd like to see, within reason. That said: I have no desire to go to Baghdad or Kabul.
-Peru - Machu Pichu, Cusco --never really thought about it, to be honest, seems like it could be a lot of fun.
-Ecuador - Galapagos - have heard good things
-Brazil -- half looked at either Rio or Sao Paolo; have always thougth about this on the way back from Antarctica - haven't really thought about doing it separately
-Iceland -- heard some good things; unsure of weather

FWIW, my current Top 5 Travel List is:
-Antarctica (not feasible at this time of year)
-Moscow/St. Petersburg (see above; I hope to do this at the end of the Trans Siberian)
-Israel (see above)
-South Africa (too far for this length trip)
-Tanzania (too far)

I'm up for any suggestions. Nothing is too far off the wall. I only promise to look at you cross-eyed if you suggest something like the Jersey Shore, where I spent my childhood.
posted by TravellingCari to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
You eliminated Caribbean for hurricanes (which I think is probabilistically unnecessary of you). If you hadn't, I was coming to [more inside] to suggest P.R.'s Bioluminescent Bay which is definitely pretty hard to ever forget.
posted by rokusan at 2:33 PM on February 25, 2009

Best answer: I spent the summer in the Middle East and had a blast. It sounds like it might fit the bill. Israel might be one of the more dangerous places to go over there right now (OK, maybe Iraq).

Egypt was fantastic, and so was Jordan. Syria really hit it out of the park for us: Damascus was the highlight of the trip. Turkey was also very interesting, and a bit more tame if that's what you guys are after. Also did Ukraine, Bulgaria, Italy - not much of a WOW factor there for us (we lived in Italy and go every other year).

It's also a great trip for photogs (my wife is a pro). Check out our photo blog of the trip.
posted by mamessner at 2:42 PM on February 25, 2009

I second the rokusan. I've been down to St. John a couple of times and its pretty incredible. If you do go to St. John stay at Caneel Bay.
posted by gregr at 2:42 PM on February 25, 2009

Go to Egypt. See the pyramids and then go scuba diving in the Red Sea.
posted by pseudonick at 2:43 PM on February 25, 2009

Response by poster: I'm willing to reconsider Caribbean, I'm just thinking of two friends who had to cancel trips due to weather. Yes, you get a refund but I want to know where I'm going and not have it at risk of getting postponed, rescheduled, etc. due to weather.

Glad to see a couple Middle East suggestions -- it's a region we both love, even if Mom is a bit hesitant at the moment
posted by TravellingCari at 3:17 PM on February 25, 2009

Cusco/Macchu Picchu is amazing, however I think the more amazing parts of the trip would have been difficult with a 60 year old travel companion (lots of hiking uphill and just general walking).

I just got back from Phuket, Thailand - Absolutely beautiful and fun and cheap. Downside: minimum travel time ~26 hours.
posted by gagglezoomer at 3:23 PM on February 25, 2009

http://anglerskingdom.com/ - Based on my image of you, I'm pretty sure the both of you would say "WOW" when you pull a 50 pound walleye out of the lake. Something different.
posted by H. Roark at 3:30 PM on February 25, 2009

How well do you know the US/Canada/Mexico? Sure it doesn't sound exotic but having spent what sounds like most of your adult life overseas, maybe a good North American sampler could WOW you...
posted by the christopher hundreds at 3:40 PM on February 25, 2009

Best answer: I completely disagree with the idea of Israel being unsafe. Stay away from the Gaza Strip and the southern part of Israel immediately around it and you'll be fine.

If it's where you want to go, go there. It's safe, developed, and people speak English. Plus, you'll be blown away.
posted by j1950 at 3:48 PM on February 25, 2009

Best answer: Israel is really something. Jerusalem must be seen before departing this mortal coil. Tiberius, Masada, Sodom, Eilat, Mt. Hermon, Jehrico, the Mount of Beatitudes, En Gedi, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, Acre. There's a ton of stuff to see. Whatever your religious traditions, take a bible and read the relevant passages for wherever you are. You'll begin to understand why people are so committed about this place. On the other hand, a friend of my brother eloquently described the country as "all elbows".

Having been to Moscow/St. Petersburg, I'd choose Israel.

I have to ask: Have you seen all of the United States? The Anasazi ruins in the southwest (Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly etc.) are as interesting as the Middle East IMHO.
We did a big family trip down "The River of No Return" in central Idaho, and I must say it is nearly my favorite trip ever. We ate like kings, peed in the river, drank beer at night, soaked in a wilderness hot tub, swam, paddled, etc. I can't say enough about it. The only thing better was the Haute Route, a ski trip through the Alps, which doesn't sound like your thing.

Another great thing to do is eat your way through the Piedmont region of Italy. It's not really a tourist destination (think Torino, Alba, Cuneo) but the food is beyond belief. The Alps are right there. It's a foodie destination and the heart of the Slow Food movement.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 4:12 PM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1) Brazil is phenomonal, and would feel slighted that you didn't consider it by itself. Rio is a beautiful city with amazing people and so many options for food, entertainment, and nearby nature. Getting around is easy by public transport or taxi. Skip Sao Paulo though, and get a flight to Iguazu for your amazing natural stuff fix: 7 kilometers of waterfalls, gentle hiking paths, and a Sheraton (on the Argentine side) right in the park, facing the falls. IIRC it's a 90 minute flight from RJ. Both of these places are dearer to me than Buenos Aires ever could have been.
2) Seconding all the people who are suggesting out-of-the-way bits of the US. I need to see these yet, too, after getting around the rest of the world the way it seems you have.
posted by whatzit at 4:29 PM on February 25, 2009

How much of a fee spirit is your mom? How about renting an RV in Reno and going to Burning Man?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:44 PM on February 25, 2009

(Which starts at the end of August.)
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:44 PM on February 25, 2009

Best answer: I can definately recommend the Galapagos ... Ecuador not quite so much (though Baños is very nice, check it out if you go) but the Galapagos islands is amazing. I did a 7 night cruise there on the Encantada and loved it, send me a mefi mail if you want to see some pictures.

After that I went to Colombia, and if you don't mind getting out of your comfort zone I can highly recommend it, especially if you speak a bit of Spanish. I stayed in Bogota which I found to be clean, safe, well laid out and has some great tourist things to do - the Museum of Gold (link in Spanish) is really interesting, theres a cable car to a very picturesque view over the city ... you can get a bus to the Cathedral of Salt , I'm sure theres lots to do that I didn't have time for just in Bogota.

I then went to Manizales, stayed at a farm, went to the Parque Nacional del Café which is a coffee based theme park (I kid you not, excellent) ... and then to Cartagena on the Carribian coast.

I found Colombians to be warm, friendly, patriotic and quite proud of their country, and more than happy to assit with helping me see the most of their amazing country that not too many go to.

Hope thats helped, I'm very jealous!
posted by Admira at 5:08 PM on February 25, 2009

assit - assist... sorry about that, too eager to post :)
posted by Admira at 5:10 PM on February 25, 2009

I'd recommend either Peru (both Cuzco/Macchu Picchu as well as the jungle areas of Manu National Park or Tambopata), Brazil (yes, Iguazu and maybe the Pantanal), or the Galapagos.

Both cultural and natural wonders abound in all three places so you and your 60+ mom would be surrounded by things to see and do. And talk about "pretty" - get your camera ready!!

What a wonderful idea - I'm sure you'll have a great time wherever you end up! Happy 30th in advance.
posted by ourroute at 5:23 PM on February 25, 2009

I visited Israel recently... got back about a month before the ceasefire ended and the troubles began. I highly recommend it.

It's a cool place. The Dead Sea was unbelievable. That alone made the trip worthwhile. The Dead Sea and Neuschwastein Castle in Germany were the most amazing things I've seen in my travels (though I'm definitely not as well travelled as you). The food is fantastic (Jews make the best bacon and Arabs make falafel that is out of this world). The Bahai Gardens and Jerusalem are amazing as well.

Hope you have a great trip!
posted by thekiltedwonder at 5:55 PM on February 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks all, these are some fabulous ideas. They're all good in so many ways. So many ideas, no ideas how I'll ever choose best for anything but all :). Thanks for 30th wishes.

1) Mom's in good shape for 60+ so light/moderate hikes would be fine for both of us. I'm not in favour of extensive hiking and am slightly concerned about altitude of Cusco, etc. but I know it's not insurmountable if there's time for acclimatisation.

2) Piedmont - agreed; amazing. However I was there in the Summer of 2007 and while I'd like to go back -- there's too much of the world I still want to see before I go back. Others that are off the list due to recent visits: Cancun (wonderful, just there in December 2008), Hawaii (this month), Vegas (November 2007).

3) Rio: good to know Iguazu is more accessible than I imagined it to be. I'd waffled on Brazil when I was considering it against Russia because I do think I'll have time to do it on the way to or from Antarctica (with Argentina being a stop in the other direction) but it seems as if I'll be considering it even more seriously for this trip.

4) Domestic US: yep, like many travelers I'm guilty of ignoring my own back yard. I've done a good chunk of the US and I can't say of any place that I'm really wanting to go for *this* trip. On my domestic wish list: Bad Lands, Mt. Rushmore, the Indian carving whose name I can't remember, Yosemite, Yellowstone, but I don't think they're right for this trip. Burning Man, not sure it's up Mom's alley but it's something a friend and I have talked about. I've seen a good chunk of Canada and while I'd like to go back to Banff one day to explore it and Jasper in greater depth, not yet ready for that. There's more of Mexico I need to see - but that's more of an exploratory loong-time trip rather than a short hop.

5) Israel: There's a ton of stuff to see. Whatever your religious traditions, take a bible and read the relevant passages for wherever you are. You'll begin to understand why people are so committed about this place. you hit the nail on the head for exactly I want to go. I think it's crucial to understanding so much history and what the state of our world is. I also know it's almost impossible to top for cultural and historical relevance and it's been in the top 5 for a long time. Also one of the reasons I LOVE Europe, even though I don't want to go this trip, is the stories that these cities could tell us if they could talk -- can't beat Israel for that. I recently read Bruce Feiler's Walking the Bible and it rejuvenated my desire to go.

6) ANglers Kingdom -- you know I *never* thought of a fishing trip. It sounds like the kind of odd and fun I would enjoy. I need to think on that.

7) Phuket -- while for some reason I've never had a huge interest in Thailand, I've heard amazing things about it but I've all but ruled out SE Asia for this trip simply due to flight time and the ensuing jet lag. While I can function on crazy things like Japan-NYC for a long weekend when I've needed to, I prefer not to for this trip.

Again these are all wonderful ideas, gives me lots more food for thought. Keep them coming and thanks again!
posted by TravellingCari at 5:57 PM on February 25, 2009

Best answer: No India on here? The Himalayas are also amazing in the summertime. Ladakh, although located in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, is perfectly safe (even according to the US State Department). Fly from Delhi up to Leh, land at 11,000 feet, take a car (if you prefer not to trek) over a 17,000 foot pass to the border with China, and see some scenery that (to my mind, having gone to both places) leaves Cusco/Andean Peru in the dust. Don't get me wrong; Machu Picchu is cool. But to me, it looked a lot like all the postcards I'd seen before. Ladakh looked like nothing I'd ever seen.

That said, Cusco is incredibly fun and a bit friendlier to the stomach, while India is less fun than fascinating. Occasionally it is even over-stimulating. For certain it's a hell of a lot more hectic and polluted (that is, cities on the plains -- ie Delhi, Jaipur, etc. -- vs. Lima; Ladakh is perfectly serene and has very clear air, MUCH clearer than Cusco IMO). But India's also got energy and color like no other place on the planet. Any trip there is bound to be incredibly memorable.

And then there's always Rio, which is certainly the most beautiful place on earth, and home of the tastiest fried cheese and beer on the planet.
posted by artemisia at 7:22 PM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: No India on here?

No, solely due to distance. All flights I found from metro NYC are showing minimum of 15 hours, which I think is a lot for one week. India definitely very near my top 5 (and may be on it by this time next year if the January trip goes as planned), but not for this trip. I really want to go.
posted by TravellingCari at 8:00 PM on February 25, 2009

what about taking a relaxing vacation instead of a wow - rent a cabin in central ontario, something really in the middle of nowhere on a lake, and just totally chill out in the woods. The area around parry sound, or manitoulin island is amazingly beautiful. August is the best time for this, as most of the mosquitoes have died off.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:27 PM on February 25, 2009

Best answer: - Brazil is amazing. Rio is a spectacularly fun, beautiful, well-fed, interesting city. Then go up north or to an ecolodge somewhere.

- Cuzco/MP...I'm not so sure. Not about the altitude, but whether a fly-by visit would really be that interesting or memorable. Part of the experience of MP is getting there and creeping up on it from a distance over a week or more trek. I can't imagine just taking the train up and down in a day. YMMV.

- Cambodia and Siem Reap on the other hand... sigh. So amazing. Worth it even if only for a week.

- Do you dive? If so, Galapagos would be phenomenal. You could go to Ecuador and Easter Island and Galapagos for a few days on a boat.

- I'd also say Cuba, but maybe not such a hot idea for two Americans. But if you want wow...it's right there. St. John's isn't really wow if you've seen resort Caribbean before.

- What about hiking in Ecuador or Costa Rica?

- Morocco

- rent a car, island-hop on ferries, live the amazing good life

What is 'wow' though? I feel like you're kind of equating it with the best-of or something. That's always a sure-fire way to be disappointed. Go somewhere you'd love to go, but maybe try to do something a little different too. What about doing one day of volunteering wherever you are? Obviously not enough to make a major impact, but I bet it would create an experience that might be far more memorable than the best camera angle possible or the most memorable dinner.
posted by barnone at 11:39 PM on February 25, 2009

Have you spent any time in the rainforests in BC? You could rent a place in Tofino, hike in the rainforest, kayak through Clayoquot Sound, experience massive tide ranges. It's really magical and restorative. Something a little different than kung-fu-pow-wow. But breathtaking nonetheless and a remarkable way to enter your 30s.
posted by barnone at 11:42 PM on February 25, 2009

Jerusalem. Because you can and because it's the center of the Universe (check it out on Google Earth) and because it's the epitome of *wow*. Don't fear. Have fun. Happy Birthday.
posted by watercarrier at 12:45 AM on February 26, 2009

Regarding diving in the Galapagos, check that its allowed beforehand. When I went, even though I was on a boat that was diving equipped, the government banned diving from all but "diving only" boats just before I arrived - i.e. if you wanted to dive, you weren't allowed to walk on the islands - which is the best bit from what I heard.

One guy decided to do a bit of a black market dive, I met him at the airport and he said it was one of the worst dives he did, even though he was experienced he said the currents nearly ripped the mouthpiece out of his mouth, and that visibility was really bad... snorkeling was apparently better than diving. YMMV.
posted by Admira at 3:33 AM on February 26, 2009

Response by poster: Cambodia and Siem Reap -- absolutely want to do it - but I'm not certain about the travel time for such a short risk. I think I'm more likely to do it the next time I'm in Japan semi long term as it's an easier/closer flight and less of the jet lag to deal with. That's when I also plan to do Laos and Vietnam. Not necessarily the same trip, but from the same distance.

What is 'wow' though? I feel like you're kind of equating it with the best-of or something. That's always a sure-fire way to be disappointed. Go somewhere you'd love to go, but maybe try to do something a little different too. What about doing one day of volunteering wherever you are? Obviously not enough to make a major impact, but I bet it would create an experience that might be far more memorable than the best camera angle possible or the most memorable dinner.

Very good point. "Wow" for me doesn't have to be grandiose but I don't want to spend my 30th doing something I could do at any time or with half a second of planning. I want a special, memorable trip. Could I do something special here in NYC? Absolutely. Is it also something I could do 365 other days? Yeah, and that's not what I want to do for my 30th. Among the more memorable things I've done in my life: decided to up and move to Japan after graduating college with little knowledge of the language, working with Habitat for Humanity -- not on the fell duration of a project but as an alternative Spring Break, swapping English lessons for cooking lessons in Japan and flamenco lessons in Spain, a walk for charity... I just happen to love to travel and want to do something special. I've saved up money for this and have hotel points/airline miles to subsidize.
posted by TravellingCari at 6:13 AM on February 26, 2009

How about a volunteering holiday? One where you get direct contact with the local culture, as it sounds like that kind of activity is what you are after.

Theres loads of opportunities - Galapagos Islands conservation, River otter volunteer project in Brazil ... the list goes on.

Have to say, I'm not sure how that will fit in with what your Mum might like or what you are after...

The ways I've gotten direct contact with the places I've visited is from meeting up with people from couchsurfing, and just from randomly meeting people ... its not easy to plan that, at least for me
posted by Admira at 9:28 PM on February 26, 2009

Response by poster: Just wanted to circle back on this...

We've decided on and booked Israel with a side trip to Petra from Eilat. Weighed the others we'd thought of and those suggested here and finally decided in the end that Israel is where we both want to go.
Thanks all for the wonderful suggestions.
posted by TravellingCari at 7:40 AM on March 14, 2009

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